For the front burner

October 20, 2002

FOUR MONTHS ago, as Afghans were deciding on a new government, Hamid Karzai took one of those calculated risks that political leaders in weak positions are often forced into. Rather than opposing the well-armed warlords who rule most of the countryside, the man who became president chose to pretend he could work with them. He struck a deal, much as his American benefactors had struck deals with some of these same warlords during the months of fighting.

So a government was formed in Kabul and no one went to war. In an impressively short time, Mr. Karzai's cabinet came up with an intelligent and praiseworthy plan to restore and develop the country -- but guess who's now getting in the way.

The warlords threaten the undoing, once again, of Afghanistan. The government holds little sway outside the capital. The International Security Assistance Force patrols the streets in Kabul -- but nowhere else. Throughout the rest of the country, order, or what there is of it, is maintained by local strongmen who have no allegiance to a peaceful future.

Afghanistan's problems are immense. On top of the ravages of war, and the continuing hit-and-run attacks against the government and against U.S. troops, a severe drought is in its fourth year. The country, outside of Kabul, has no police, no schools, no roads, no banks, no food, and little of the promised economic aid from abroad.

The international program to discourage the cultivation of opium poppies is a joke. The harvest could top 2,500 tons this year, and where else is a warlord going to get the money to pay his men?

Almost everywhere, the country is still ruled from the barrel of a gun by men who have only their own power and wealth in mind. It doesn't have to be this way.

Traditional Afghan society was governed by councils of tribal elders. The "commanders" seized power during the chaos of war. If the government were given the means to extend its reach into the regions, to show results to ordinary people, to re-create the rule of consensus, the power of those strongmen would wither away. People are desperate for peace, and for hope. The president's brother, Qayum Karzai of Maryland, is on the right track with his Afghans for Civil Society organization, trying to rebuild the structures that make a normal everyday life possible.

But Kabul needs help from the outside, and soon. The United States, which helped create the warlords during the years of Soviet occupation, owes a moral debt to the Afghans. But let's be realistic: There's more at stake than the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

Following the recent elections in Pakistan, there is now a large region to the southeast of Kabul, straddling two countries, where the local population and to varying degrees the local power structures are hostile to Mr. Karzai, hostile to the United States, and -- by the way -- sympathetic not only to the remnants of the Taliban but to al-Qaida as well. The west and north of Afghanistan are restless, the south resentful. If Afghanistan goes, everything that has been accomplished in the war on terrorism will have been fruitless.

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